Which profession do you think is the most dangerous? Many people think that cops have the most hazardous jobs, but in reality, the number of fatal injuries incurred by loggers is much higher than cops (135 per 100,000 loggers vs. 14.6 per 100,000 cops). This phenomenon is due to the availability heuristic, which explains our inclination to make future judgments based on information that comes to mind fast and easily. Our brains think of several examples of police shootings because of their ubiquitous presence in news channels and social media. A news report hardly covers the death of loggers on their jobs as extensively as they do police shootings. This helps our mind create a mental “shortcut,” i.e., relying on more common information than the accurate one.
Similarly, say you are watching the news about lottery winners in your area, you then start to overestimate your chances of winning the lottery. Availability heuristic sways human judgment by assessing the frequency of a certain event by how quickly and easily that event comes to mind.
The term “availability heuristic” was coined in 1973 by Nobel prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They conducted an experiment called ‘Fame, Frequency and Recall’ in which they read two lists of famous people to their participants. The first list consisted of uber-famous male celebrities, and the second list had less famous female celebrities. Unsurprisingly, participants recalled more famous celebrities than those who were less famous. However, they also judged the frequency of the famous class celebrities to be much higher, even though the list of less famous celebrities had more names. Succinctly, things that come to mind more easily are considered more common. The same psychologists conducted the Judgement of Word Frequency Experiment. They asked participants whether the letter ‘R’ is more likely to appear in the first or third places of a word. Although the number of words with the letter ‘R’ in third place disproportionately outnumbered those with ‘R’s in the first position, most participants misjudged this because the letter ‘R’ at first position was retrieved more easily.
In the modern era, the availability bias is perceived as how singular, memorable instances influence decisions. The availability heuristic has been found to be automatic; once experienced, it affects human judgment even if it is further discredited.
In the retail context, large price discounts, frequently aligned with the brand identity of many supermarkets, have been shown to influence where consumers find it attractive to shop. An easily recalled super-low price on a jug of detergent can serve as a cue to remind the consumer that the store sells many more items at that great price point. This heuristic can have a big impact if people can easily recall large price rollbacks, such as those offered by stores like Walmart or No Frills.
What Can Brands Do?
As you can expect, the availability heuristic has a huge impact on consumer behavior. A great example of an availability heuristic is the IKEA logo designed using the yellow and blue colors of the Swedish flag. The strength of such heuristics allows people to build a distinctive memory associated with the brand. Brands can follow steps to tap into the availability heuristic:
1. Identify Distinctive Brand Assets: The brand should identify their distinctive brand assets that are easily recognized as owned by the brand and elicit the right on-brand associations. For example, think of the iconic Doritos shape and logo – with the triangle shape being one of the greatest owned assets for the brand. Building memory structures with the distinctive brand assets, such as the Doritos triangle, enhances all future advertising, making it much easier to refresh and reinforce existing memories with the brand. At Hotspex, we can help you uncover your distinctive brand assets with our proprietary techniques that are based on well-established implicit psychometrics.
2. Identify the Problem (and Offer a Solution): The brand must try to present a solution to a problem. The problem can be overestimated in the buyer’s head through appropriate communication. By linking your solution to an easily remembered problem, you can make it easier for consumers to remember and purchase you. You can feature a personal success story of your product. For example, fitness companies feature before-and-after personal stories, making people think they can see the same change in themselves, leading to an increase in sales.
3. Align with Trendy Topics: Brands should align with trending topics that frequently appear on news feeds. For example, sustainability or artificial intelligence are quite popular topics. Aligning your brand with these can help you stay at the top of your customers’ minds. They will think about your brand whenever they see similar things on the news or social media.
4. Relentless Consistency in Messaging: Brands must have a similar message throughout their marketing campaign. They must not change the message too frequently. You want your brand to come to consumers’ minds at the right time and in the right place.
Availability heuristics are mental shortcuts that people tend to rely on when making judgments. Often such judgments are dictated by how easily that information comes to mind rather than actual data. Such heuristic judgments are frequently driven by a singular, memorable event that outsizes the decision. Brands can align themselves with the availability heuristic by employing strategies that keep them top-of-mind to their consumers.
So, how top-of-mind is your brand?
Sources: Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1973). Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability. Cognitive psychology, 5, 207-232.
Menon, G. & Raghubir, P. S. (2003), Ease-of-Retrieval as an Automatic Input in Judgments: A Mere Accessibility Framework? Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 230–243.
Ofir, C., Raghubir, P., Brosh, G., Monroe, K. B., & Heiman, A. (2008). Memory-Based Store Price Judgments: The Role of Knowledge and Shopping Experience. Journal of retailing, 84, 414-423.
Shams, M. (2002). The Availability Heuristic in Judgments of Research Findings: Manipulations of Subjective Experience. All Volumes (2001-2008). 114-127.
Sharp, B. (2010). How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know. Oxford.